Monthly Archives: June 2014

Jun. 23, 2014 Anna Dunphy

Readers,

it was a good week (well, 2 weeks–sorry) filled with MV reader cameos. I spent a good chunk of Friday and Saturday talking about William Butler Yeats, for reasons not involving poetry.
Yeats, as we may have discussed a time or two here, was a kook. A serious kook. He was an immensely talented person with a broad range of interests, which he pursued in various states of intensity over a long life. And one of his interests was the occult. We all have the internet machine now, so you can read up all you want to on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, its founder, MacGregor Mathers, and Yeats’ eventual disputes with Mathers. Yeats’ great love and Irish nationalist, Maud Gonne, was a member. So was Bram Stoker. The order believed in reincarnation, space-time travel, seances, spells, and other kooky stuff. I’m sorry for using the word kooky but it’s hard to write about this kind of thing without being slightly derisive. I mean come on: They used egyptian symbols, greek gods, the imagery of the cross, latin incantations, and wore hoods and robes. And it’s hard to not laugh out loud when you learn that some bored rich fools still do this crap. But I’m not here to make fun of crap. I’m here to share crappy poetry with you.
So I found a list of former members who were writers, and of course some were better known than others. Still, a decent sampling of Irish, Welsh, English, and American playwrights, poets, novelists, and “historians” have given their permission to wikipedia to list them as one-time members. I mean, I assume wikipedia has their permission, because of course they could object posthumously if they weren’t OK with that.
Among the luminaries was an American singer named Anna Dunphy, who was raised in New York and Cincinnati. She married a rich doctor with a European hereditary title, and so of course even after his death called herself Comtesse Anna de Bremont. She moved to London and in 1888 joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. She also began publishing poems, travel narratives, celebrity biographies (one of Wilde’s wife Constance, for example, also an occultist), and music criticism. My favorite title I found was called “Love Letters in Verse to a Young Musician,” dedicated to pianist Thuel Burnham. I found 3 short pieces to represent her style. The first I like because I got to experience live music 3 times in a great music city last week, so I am completely down with her take on Apollo’s lyre. The second because I don’t know what it means unless it means exactly what it means, in which case it is gross. And the last because it about explains the depth of thinking that goes into this mystical claptrap. To paraphrase Whitman, Do I offend? So I offend. Have a good week! -ed.
HIS TOUCH
Apollo’s lute hath never sweeter sound
Than those rich tones that hold our senses bound.
When in his witching rhapsody of touch
He wraps our souls with extasy around.
THE KISS
Sweet is the kiss of life’s fulfilled desire,
And sweet the kiss that fuels passion’s fire;
But more supremely sweet the last chaste kiss
When two souls meeting on Love’s lips expire!
THE CHAIN
I send my thoughts in waving links of light,
Across the town to chain thine inner sight,
Within the spell that binds us soul to soul
And makes us One thro’ distance of the night.
-1914

June 9, 2014 Lament

Dear readers,

I thoroughly enjoyed last week’s back-and-forth on spillover lines, punctuation, and the existence of blogs in the 13th century, and I tried to keep my big nose out of it.

After reading and re-reading Jamsheed’s message, I think the “opposite” he meant is not the end-stopped line, but–as Brandon addressed in his second paragraph–what happens in the middle of a line that’s enjambed. That is, enjambment is a visual break where syntactically/rhythmically/sense-wise there is none, so that what happens withinthe lines is thus a break in syntax, rhythm or sense where visually there is none. What do we call that thing going on within the lines? I don’t know! And looking up a word you don’t know can be challenging.

I am totally on board with Brandon’s description of the result of that for-now-unnamed choice: it leads us to various meanings and discoveries. In thinking about a poem to recognize Indiana’s Pride Week (I know these extravaganzas go on nationwide–is it the same week everywhere?), I went to a source for poems that would explicitly address gay sexuality, where explicit means “the opposite of implicit,” not “graphic.” And given last week’s discussion, Thom Gunn (1929-2004) did not let me down at all. Here’s a polished, open-hearted, weighty, but utterly lovely piece from his 1992 collection, The Man with Night Sweats. Note that it’s written entirely in rhyming couplets, with a fairly regular meter, but might not be instantly recognizable as such if read out loud. Some of his lines are end-stopped, with full, perfect rhymes coinciding with sentences or syntactical units, and in other places several sequential lines are enjambed. And he does some really clever rhyming, too, employing both perfect and slant rhyme. The flow of time, word, and emotion in this one is right up there with some of my favorites, and I’m glad to have stumbled upon this today. -ed.

LAMENT

Your dying was a difficult enterprise.
First, petty things took up your energies,
The small but clustering duties of the sick,
Irritant as the cough’s dry rhetoric.
Those hours of waiting for pills, shot, X-ray
Or test (while you read novels two a day)
Already with a kind of clumsy stealth
Distanced you from the habits of your health.
    In hope still, courteous still, but tired and thin,
You tried to stay the man that you had been,
Treating each symptom as a mere mishap
Without import. But then the spinal tap.
It brought a hard headache, and when night came
I heard you wake up from the same bad dream
Every half-hour with the same short cry
Of mild outrage, before immediately
Slipping into the nightmare once again
Empty of content but the drip of pain.
No respite followed: though the nightmare ceased,
Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased.
Four nights, and on the fifth we drove you down
To the Emergency Room. That frown, that frown:
I’d never seen such rage in you before
As when they wheeled you through the swinging door.
For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you from
Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom
The hedonistic body basks within
And takes for granted—summer on the skin,
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea
In a dry mouth. You had gone on from me
As if your body sought out martyrdom
In the far Canada of a hospital room.
Once there, you entered fully the distress
And long pale rigours of the wilderness.
A gust of morphine hid you. Back in sight
You breathed through a segmented tube, fat, white,
Jammed down your throat so that you could not speak.
    How thin the distance made you. In your cheek
One day, appeared the true shape of your bone
No longer padded. Still your mind, alone,
Explored this emptying intermediate
State for what holds and rests were hidden in it.
    You wrote us messages on a pad, amused
At one time that you had your nurse confused
Who, seeing you reconciled after four years
With your grey father, both of you in tears,
Asked if this was at last your ‘special friend’
(The one you waited for until the end).
‘She sings,’ you wrote, ‘a Philippine folk song
To wake me in the morning … It is long
And very pretty.’ Grabbing at detail
To furnish this bare ledge toured by the gale,
On which you lay, bed restful as a knife,
You tried, tried hard, to make of it a life
Thick with the complicating circumstance
Your thoughts might fasten on. It had been chance
Always till now that had filled up the moment
With live specifics your hilarious comment
Discovered as it went along; and fed,
Laconic, quick, wherever it was led.
You improvised upon your own delight.
I think back to the scented summer night
We talked between our sleeping bags, below
A molten field of stars five years ago:
I was so tickled by your mind’s light touch
I couldn’t sleep, you made me laugh too much,
Though I was tired and begged you to leave off.
Now you were tired, and yet not tired enough
—Still hungry for the great world you were losing
Steadily in no season of your choosing—
And when at last the whole death was assured,
Drugs having failed, and when you had endured
Two weeks of an abominable constraint,
You faced it equably, without complaint,
Unwhimpering, but not at peace with it.
You’d lived as if your time was infinite:
You were not ready and not reconciled,
Feeling as uncompleted as a child
Till you had shown the world what you could do
In some ambitious role to be worked through,
A role your need for it had half-defined,
But never wholly, even in your mind.
You lacked the necessary ruthlessness,
The soaring meanness that pinpoints success.
We loved that lack of self-love, and your smile,
Rueful, at your own silliness.
                                              Meanwhile,
Your lungs collapsed, and the machine, unstrained,
Did all your breathing now. Nothing remained
But death by drowning on an inland sea
Of your own fluids, which it seemed could be
Kindly forestalled by drugs. Both could and would:
Nothing was said, everything understood,
At least by us. Your own concerns were not
Long-term, precisely, when they gave the shot
—You made local arrangements to the bed
And pulled a pillow round beside your head.
    And so you slept, and died, your skin gone grey,
Achieving your completeness, in a way.
Outdoors next day, I was dizzy from a sense
Of being ejected with some violence
From vigil in a white and distant spot
Where I was numb, into this garden plot
Too warm, too close, and not enough like pain.
I was delivered into time again
—The variations that I live among
Where your long body too used to belong
And where the still bush is minutely active.
You never thought your body was attractive,
Though others did, and yet you trusted it
And must have loved its fickleness a bit
Since it was yours and gave you what it could,
Till near the end it let you down for good,
Its blood hospitable to those guests who
Took over by betraying it into
The greatest of its inconsistencies
This difficult, tedious, painful enterprise.
-1992

June 2, 2014 To a Poor Old Woman

Dear readers,

Two things today: Let’s throw it open for discussion on the topic of moving away from an e-mail based platform for MV. My position has been that people will not go to a blog, and I only hold that position because that’s what readers have told me over the years. If it comes into your inbox you can ignore or delete a message, and I am sure some of us do that some of the time. On the other hand, I believe there’s a core of people for whom NOT having to take an affirmative step means they’ll actually read the poem (eventually). The proposal of a blog-based platform presents a choice between 2 imperfect situations: Readers feeling less inclined to share a response, or readers being less likely to see any response, because they wouldn’t visit a blog on a regular basis.

Of course I’ve never had a blog, so this is where I can take some instruction from others on this list. But I will also ask: Is your engagement with the poem not enriched by some reader’s response, no matter what the response? Would others’ experience not mirror your own if you were the person sharing? I’ve yet to read the commentary that was without merit, and that’s over 17 years, and a lot of short, funny, and even “pointless” comments. Everyone has an out on this list–all you gotta do is tell me “I quit.” And I’ve regularly asked people if I have their preferred e-mail address for this forum. So, and this is just me talkin’, I don’t see clogging up people’s inboxes as a factor.

Number 2: God I love the Poetry Foundation’s website. Great mini-bios, or long bios, great introductions to major poets’ entire output, thematic articles, and clean version of tons of major works. And you can word search for things like… enjambment. So let me run another WC Williams poem, and this time I’ll let the editorial staff of the PF do the appraising. Poem first, selected explication below. Is Stephen Burt’s attentive reading too grand? Williams really liked plums, I guess–that’s what I’m taking from the poem. -ed.

TO A POOR OLD WOMAN

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

…Not only did Williams work to see a more egalitarian America, but he also worked to hear it, to make a new American sound from spoken language. Whitman modeled his democratic free verse on the long lines he found in the King James Bible (for example, in the Psalms): he described nineteenth-century America in end-stopped lines and sentences whose cadence—however unlike Longfellow’s or Tennyson’s—grew from centuries-old English roots. Williams invented free verse of a whole new sort. Unlike Whitman’s works, a Williams poem is usually short-lined, irregular in cadence, and dependent on frequent enjambments, where line breaks at phrase ends are the exception rather than the rule. Williams did not do it all himself—as early as the late 1910s, fellow poets were publishing similar verse in the same magazines—but among all those allies, he had the best ear and most often found the best uses for the defiantly un-English, un-Biblical, demotic patterns he heard. His constant exposure to immigrants’ speech, his own trilingual background (his mother spoke French and Spanish at home), and the procession of working-class patients he encountered as a New Jersey doctor likely helped.

In this new American free verse, the line break became Williams’s great, virtuosic instrument and “To a Poor Old Woman” is a bravura performance. Its repeated independent clause, “They taste good to her,” becomes something like a scientific experiment: line breaks vary, while the rest of the language (the same words in the same order) remains constant. We thus see the power that enjambment can exert over sentence sound and meaning. The first iteration works as a sort of control group showing the sentence whole, as a line without enjambment (“They taste good to her”). They taste good, rather than bad; Williams can see, and we see with him, how much she enjoys them. The second iteration (“They taste good / to her”) suggests that they might not taste good to us (unless we are poor); her hunger leads her to rate the plums more highly than we would. And the next restatement (“They taste / good to her”) could imply that, while they may taste good, they look ugly (spotted, bruised, discolored, or half-rotten). The break after “taste” also emphasizes “good,” so that we ask what good means, what might be “good to her.” The last line repeats the sentence without enjambment. In between comes more description, as in a cinematic close-up: to know more about what “good” means to her, we have to look longer at her.

…In recordings of Williams reading this poem and others, he does not pause at line breaks, but uses them as marks of emphasis. To hear him read these lines is to see how enjambments allow him to choose among the potential meanings and tones for his key words. Such lessons in listening also become lessons in democratic sympathy. Listening to these lines about this woman means paying sustained attention to her by listening to language she might use (all common monosyllables, repeated) and thinking about what she enjoys and how she might feel. For Williams, the neglected syllables, the “common” and too often overlooked words in our language, correspond to the “common” people and to common pleasures: as we attend to one, we defend them all.